Being a critical friend

In Museums on April 11, 2017 at 3:31 pm

Sometimes we all need some tough love. Friends who tell it to you like it is are perhaps the best friends.

I’ve started work on a new project to create a forum for sharing best practice in photographic collections and archives – the Photographic Collections Network. I’m going to be their critical friend.

Subject specialist networks are funded by the Arts Council with the aim of creating a platform for the exchange of ideas, expertise, research and best practice in specific areas where no other body currently exists.

To date there’s not very little that’s brought together the vast range of photographic archives across the country. There are some big players in the photographic collections world such as the V&A, the Imperial War Museum, Tate and the newly rebranded National Museum of Science and Media. We’d expect these organisations to be networked and to know each other.

But what about the smaller archives of photography? Local studies libraries and county archive services hold enormous numbers of photographs. As do museums, businesses, community groups, places of worship etc.

The Photographic Collections Network aims to provide a forum that can bring these collections – and the people who care for them – together. A project co-ordinator and a researcher, both based in London, are now in place, working away on developing a programme of activity. And the whole project is being overseen by a steering group and managed by Redeye, based in Manchester.

My official title is ‘Evaluator’ but I don’t want to be seen as someone who’s going to test or examine the staff or members of this new organisation. Instead I’ll be keeping a watchful eye over the development of the network, asking some questions along the way and providing feedback as the project develops. So I think in this instance I prefer the title ‘Critical Friend’ to evaluator.

As an independent researcher I can offer an outside perspective – a fresh pair of eyes over the network’s plans and activity. But as someone who understands how collections and networks operate, I can also offer a little advice as we go.

I’ve created an evaluation framework, so that I’ve got something to judge their results against. Getting the organisation’s buy-in to this was important, so that we all know what I’m going to monitoring against. By describing now what we think success will look like in a year’s time, we can see whether the SSN achieved those goals – if so, how? – and if not, why not and what can we do better?

Over the next year I’ll watch the development of the network closely, talking with the staff and members, observing events and meetings and providing feedback on how it’s going. There might need to be some tough love, but there’ll also be some celebration of what’s gone well.

Friendly, constructive criticism. It’s quite straightforward to dole it out. I could do with some of that myself.


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